Trouble at the Proms

Before sitting down to write these posts, I generally mull over in my mind what I am planning to write, and try to formulate at least some of the key sentences. And in the course of doing so for this particular post, I found it very hard to dispense with the word “wankers”. It is not a word I like to use, especially on this blog, which I like to think of as an oasis of refinement and sophistication, but in this instance, it does appear to be, as the say, le mot juste. Let me explain.

The Proms, or, to give it its full title, the Promenade concerts, are a series of concerts of western classical music (with the occasional diversion) organised by the BBC, and held in the very impressive surroundings of the Royal Alert Hall in London. It last over a great many weeks over summer, and features not only the excellent BBC orchestras, but other orchestras and ensembles from around the country, and, indeed, from around the world. It features also conductors and soloists – singers, pianists, violinists, etc – of the highest calibre, again, from all around the world. When I go to these concerts nowadays, I generally fork out for seats, but in my younger days, when I was more suited to such things, I used to queue up for standing tickets in the Arena (that is, the large space immediately in front of the orchestra) which were, and still are, available at an extremely modest price.

It has been called, with reason, the greatest classical music festival in the world. I suppose it could be said that, away from the summer months, London itself presents a festival of classical music: no other city, I think, has so many orchestras and ensembles, or so many venues, such an embarrassment of riches of visiting artists. To state a personal preference, I actually prefer concerts in Barbican Hall, or the Royal Festival Hall, or the Wigmore Hall, or wherever, to Proms concerts. But there’s no denying that a fully packed Royal Albert Hall, or even a less than fully packed Royal Albert Hall, does provide a real sense of occasion. Some of the very best concerts I have attended have been at the Proms.

However, to most people, the Proms do not bring to mind images of orchestras playing Beethoven or Berlioz or Stravinsky: the public image of the Proms is that of the Last Night, where, traditionally, the second half of the concert (televised live by BBC) is a party. Patriotic songs – Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem – are sung (with the audience singing along), flags are waved, speeches are made, and a good time, it seems, is had by all. Except by those who see in all this a deplorable and cringeworthy display of jingoism. Is it really suitable, they ask rhetorically, to sing, in this day and age, lyrics such as this?

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet

Or what about this, written at a time when Britain was itself heavily involved in the slave trade?

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves,
Britons never never never shall be slaves

Of course not. How could such lyrics fail to offend People of Colour? And if they aren’t offended – and it seems the vast majority of them can’t give a toss – then they jolly well should be! They can’t leave us to do all this outraging on their behalf by ourselves!

It is at this point I find myself reaching for the word “wankers”, although I am unsure whom to apply that epithet to – those bedecked in the Union Jack singing these rather silly and outdated lyrics, or those who get ever so offended on behalf of others. On balance, I think I side with the Promenaders on this one. Of course, if the Promenaders came out of the concert shouting racist slogans, or beating up foreign-looking people, that would be another matter; but since they don’t, since it all seems pretty good-humoured – and indeed, a great many of the Promenaders, hailing as they do from different parts of the world, happily wave their own national flags without incurring any disapprobation from others – I can’t in all honesty see a problem.

Personally, I must admit I find the ritualistic singing of these songs rather embarrassing and cringe-inducing, but I have devised an excellent solution to overcome this: I don’t go to these Last Night concerts. And neither do I watch them on television. It’s a cunning scheme, I know, but it works for me.

Traditionally, the penultimate night of the Proms used to be given over to a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and that is the night I always regarded as the real Last Night of the Proms; but sadly, that tradition has now fallen by the wayside. Beethoven’s 9th symphony is still performed, but is usually tucked away somewhere in the schedules away from the prominent slot it used to have.

However, I should perhaps think twice before labelling the concert-goers of the Last Night “wankers” en masse, merely for enjoying something I don’t. A friend of mine, who used regularly to attend the Last Night, tells me that neither he, nor anyone he knew, took the words of these songs at all seriously: it was all a bit of ironic, tongue-in-cheek fun, a knowing enjoyment of the naffness of it all. It’s all part of the fun of the party. I can believe that: this knowing, tongue-in-cheek enjoyment of naffness is something I can identify as very typically British. Problem remains, though, that I am not really a party person. For many, I am sure, there is nothing finer than bonding, even to jingoistic songs, with people who, till then, had been strangers; but while I am all for Alle Menschen becoming Brüder, I am sufficiently British to expect them to keep a decorous distance from me thereafter.

There are, however, other objections to the Last Night jamboree – aesthetic objections rather than moral ones: after months of concerts featuring some of the very finest music the western world has produced, is it really appropriate to showcase the whole thing with a medley of rather silly and trivial patriotic numbers? The idea, of course, is to lighten up at the end, have a party, but must “having a party” necessarily involve all this triviality – all this jingoistic vulgarity that’s so much at odds with what had come before? Of course, it’s easy, all too easy, to dismiss this kind of objection as mere puritanism: dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no cakes and ale? But I do, I admit, have more than a sneaking sympathy with this stance. Given its prominence, the Last Night does tend to colour public perceptions of the Proms as a whole, and of classical music in particular; and expecting it all to be a party (as some seem to do) does, perhaps, distract somewhat from the seriousness of serious music. Despite the temptation to airily proclaim that everything is a bit of a laugh really, and that nothing should be taken too seriously, we should perhaps concede that certain things are indeed serious, and that an element of gravity, of decorum, isn’t perhaps always out of place.  Life devoid of seriousness seems to me unlikely to be very fulfilling, or even, for that matter, very enjoyable.

But be that as it may, all these arguments about the Last Night, pro and contra, have rumbled on for years now. However, this year, as with everything else, it’s all out in the open: all hell has broken loose. Of course, with the coronavirus lockdown, the Proms have had to be cancelled this year: BBC Radio 3 has been filling its summer schedule broadcasting recordings of Proms concerts from the past. But they did decide to have a few live concerts, albeit without a live audience. And one of these live concerts will be the Last Night – complete with patriotic songs. Which means, yet again, a tedious rehash of all those arguments relating to them. And, on this occasion, the conductor herself, Dalia Stasevska, appears to have a few problems with these patriotic songs. So, naturally, the organisers of the Proms had to discuss the matter. But, in a mischievous article in the Sunday Times, we were told that the BBC is “agonising about ‘decolonising’ the Last Night’s traditional bill”; that they were considering dropping the songs “in the wake of the Black Lives Matter” movement; and that “organisers fear a backlash because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery”. Given that there had been no call from any of the protest groups associated with Black Lives Matter – no demand, not even so much as a request – the epithet “wankers” may not be entirely irrelevant here in reference to such reporting.

But of course, outrage sells: it boosts the ratings. We love being outraged. That angry splutter, that furious indignation, that heart-warming glow of moral certainty – what can there possibly be to match that? Nothing much to get outraged by? No matter – make one up! Soon, BBC News got in on the act as well, citing the Sunday Times piece, and explaining to us why People of Colour (that is, people like myself) may indeed find the lyrics of these songs “offensive”.

The Proms organisers reached their decision soon enough: the songs will be played, but, for this year only, in instrumental versions. Given that these songs are occasions for concert-goers to sing along to, and that there is no live audience this year, that seems to me a rather reasonable decision. But by now, the floodgates had been opened to wankers of various shades. The Arts Minister, Oliver Dowden, weighed in; so did our beloved Prime Minister, who knows a populist stance when he sees one. Suddenly, all sorts of people who had never shown the slightest interest in classical music, or in any form of culture really, are outraged – outraged, I tell you! – that these culturally vital songs have been dropped from this great showcase for classical music. Even if they’ve not been dropped.

And wankers from the other side weren’t reticent either. There still – as far as I know – been no demand from any of the protest groups regarding these songs, but suddenly, calls from various individuals to drop them for being so racist and insensitive seem to have multiplied – again from many who had shown not the slightest interest in the culture of classical music before, and who, quite literally, can’t tell their Arne from their Elgar.

(I should point out at this stage that that this Arne-Elgar gag is not my own. But since there is no copyright on it, I am as entitled as anyone else to recycle it.)

But we are where we are. Far more people, it seems, care about being outraged over outrages done to culture than care about culture itself. ‘Twas ever thus, I guess. But that does leave me with a dilemma: with so many wankers around all over the place, which group of wankers should I laugh at?

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christine Lyon on August 26, 2020 at 6:30 pm

    We’ve been having a few conversations in this household on this topic. My husband (fat, elderly, white man), clearly recalls seeing (or maybe it was just heard, back in his youth), his very first Last Night, and being totally disgusted by the whole thing. But then, he is a lover of classical music, and no one can pretend that the Last Night of the Proms has anything to do with classical music. Personally, I (fat, elderly, white woman) have always looked on it as a jolly singalong, probably fun if you are there, but with some fairly cringeworthy content. Surely there are other good tunes that everyone could sing along to? Which of course brings us to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which contains what, for me at least, is the ultimate feel-good, lift-up-your-hearts tune, in the shape of the ‘Ode to Joy’. But, of course, we can’t have that anymore, because someone, somewhere, might think that we identified with our European neighbours. What a mess!

    I’m happy with orchestral versions of the standard repertoire. The tunes are rousing enough, though hardly ‘classical’. The words are for many of us, the really unacceptable part, and orchestral renderings leave whatever audience there may be, free to fill in the lyrics or not. A bit like the very old joke about the young woman who complained that her boyfriend knew a lot of dirty songs. “Does he sing them.”, she was asked. “No, but he whistles them” was the reply. I do find it very disturbing that characters such as Johnson are seeking to turn these outdated songs into tests of patriotism and loyalty. My pride in my country and my herItage does not stem from a few outdated, jingoistic ditties. Or maybe it’s just me that’s outdated.

    Reply

  2. I don’t have a satisfactory answer to your last question. Like you I generally avoid the Last Night of the Proms (LNOTP). But this year the BBC has commissioned an arrangement of Parry’s “Jerusalem” (dare I suggest that Blake’s poem is much misunderstood, not least by some on the Right, along with Kipling being misunderstood by some on Left and Right) by an excellent composer I’ve known for many years, so I will be listening to that piece.

    Before reading your interesting thoughts I had devised my own not exactly a solution. Not many(?) people know that the world premiere of Schoenberg’s atonal Five Pieces for Orchestra – written in 1909 – was in a 1912 Promenade Concert in London conducted by Henry Wood himself. Moreover, Henry Wood later suggested that Schoenberg himself should be invited to conduct the Five Pieces in a concert at the Queen’s Hall (London), and this happened in January 1914.

    So in the spirit of tradition and inventing tradition (every tradition must start by not being a tradition!) I suggest that to celebrate Sir Henry Wood’s enterprise and commitment to new music – not only by British but by European composers – in the future Schoenberg’s Five Pieces should be played as the last item in the first half of every Last Night of the BBC Proms, preceded by a brief speech by the conductor celebrating Henry Wood’s achievements, including that these were not only for British music. I have every confidence this will rapidly become an eagerly anticipated part of TLNOTP: I mean, who could possibly object to it?

    Reply

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